Thousands of documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request by Dr. Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has uncovered that British officials in London and Zimbabwe were aware of the atrocities in the 1980s.
In an interview with the Guardian, Dr. Cameron said that the British could have stopped some of the things that were taking place in Zimbabwe; instead they decided to further their own interests.
"The British government could have influenced authorities in Zimbabwe, but put political and economic interests first… There were steps they could have taken but they chose not to," Cameron told the paper.
The 1980 elections saw President Robert Mugabe take power following a brutal guerrilla struggle.
18 April 1980. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe at midnight and independent from Britain. Robert Mugabe was appointed its first Prime Minister. pic.twitter.com/QJsDRaHizn— Prof.Frank McDonough (@FXMC1957) April 18, 2017
In 1983, Mugabe decided to launch an offensive in Matabeleland, home of the country's Ndebele ethnic minority and stronghold of political rival Joshua Nkomo. Over the next nine months, the Fifth Brigade of the new Zimbabwe National Army tortured and raped tens of thousands of unarmed civilians. Sources have estimated that during this time between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed and many suffered severe physical and psychological damage.
However the British government was more concerned with furthering their own political and economic interests, according to the recently released documents.
"Zimbabwe is important to us [Britain] primarily because of major British and western economic and strategic interests in southern Africa, and Zimbabwe's pivotal position there," Robin Byatt, the British high commissioner in Harare, said in a report from 1983.
"Other important interests are investment and trade… prestige, and the need to avoid a mass white exodus. Zimbabwe… [also] is a bulwark against Soviet inroads," Byatt added.
Byatt also claimed that the Fifth Brigade, who was the group that committed many of the crimes were not as brutal as made out to be.
"The behavior of the Fifth Brigade has certainly been brutal but it is [the] impression [of senior British military officials] that they are not out of control," he wrote.
Jill Byatt, wife of the former high commissioner, told the Guardian that this type of criticism is misplaced.
"It was very important to keep good relations… Aggressive criticism would have got us nowhere. It would just not have worked," she said.